Sunday, March 23, 2014

Faith, Reason, and Evidence

In the comments to this post, Brett contends that religious tenets are matters of faith, and so arguing about the matter will not lead to any definitive resolution.

However, in my opinion, the arguments are important. A mature faith has to account for the arguments that can be made against it. A while ago I listened to a podcast featuring Richard Bushman. He spoke of a smart, faithful church friend who had made the decision not to study church history because he didn't want anything he learned to shake his beliefs. Bushman's diagnosis was that as long as this friend thought there was some fact out there that might hurt his testimony, his faith was on shaky ground.

I think the same holds true for arguments against faith. If your faith can't withstand arguments against it, it's not on firm footing. B. H. Roberts thought along similar lines about the Book of Mormon: " I am taking the position that our faith is not only unshaken but unshakable in the Book of Mormon, and therefore we can look without fear upon all that can be said against it."

I also think there is something to be gained by learning the arguments for and against your beliefs, even if your beliefs are ultimately based on faith. For example,
  1. You might discover your faith has a strong logical underpinning, strengthening your faith
  2. You might learn some arguments to support your already held beliefs
  3. You might learn how to express your already held beliefs in a more convincing way
  4. You might discover some areas of your beliefs that are not fully developed, which you can develop with more thought and study
  5. You might discover there is a certain aspect of your belief system that you cannot defend and will abandon, leaving the core of your beliefs stronger
  6. You might inoculate yourself against certain attacks on your beliefs by learning the arguments against your beliefs in an environment where you can also learn the arguments supporting your beliefs
  7. You might use arguments to clear away ground so that there is room for faith to exist


Brett said...

For me it depends on the type of argument you're taking about.

Sure I think one should be familiar with the history of one's church, including the difficult to understand parts. I'm also fine debating whether faith, spiritual communications, etc. are valid ways of knowing. And I agree that your list contains potential positive outcomes of such searching. But when one tries to employ a scientific line of reasoning (or a God in the Gaps criticism of the limits of science) to justify faith, it just feels like that is a moving target.

The watch example I previously shared is one such instance. Back to cosmology for another: Our best data on the constituents of the universe reveal an incredible degree of fine tuning between the amounts of dark matter, dark energy, and regular matter. Tweak the ratios ever so slightly and you wouldn't get a universe like we see today, nor one that would likely create conditions hospitable for life.

It's tempting for the religious person to say, "Well this is obviously strong evidence that God
made things just so." But then what if science progresses to the point where there is a natural explanation for the fine tuning? The multiverse already proposes that there are potentially an infinite number of universes, so it's no surprise that one of them would have the properties that ours does, or that we happen to be here to see it (just like knowing that there are many planets makes it not surprising that some of them are habitable and that it is on just such a one that we find ourselves).

Is the multiverse proposal largely faith-based at this point? Sure, but that's not the point. If one day there is concrete scientific evidence for an infinite number of universes, should I then have less faith in God because that faith was partially founded on the former inability of science to explain the fine tuning of the universe?

I prefer my faith founded in a spiritual witness.

Brett said...

I forgot to check the "email me comments" box, so I'm commenting again.

Ryan said...

You make a good point. If the argument for God is, we don't have a scientific explanation for a certain natural phenomenon, so God did it, once scientists discover a scientific explanation, the argument for God from lack of scientific explanation evaporates.

However, I'm not as concerned about this as you are, mostly because I doubt we will ever have a really good explanation for some scientific mysteries, like the beginning of the universe. We're always going to have a question, "what was before that?" or "what caused that," which we will be unable to answer scientifically.

Also, I wonder how your objection to using unexplained scientific phenomenon to bolster faith accounts for miracles. Aren't miracles basically phenomenon that cannot be explained by science, which we use as evidence of god's existence? Should we not use these as evidence for God because they may eventually be explained away scientifically? Or is there an important distinction I'm missing?

Maybe these matters are only conclusively decided by reliance on spiritual witness. But it seems to me there is an interesting interaction between spiritual witness, reason and facts--otherwise facts and reason would be irrelevant to any kind of religious truth. But I think we both agree, they aren't. I'm not entirely sure how these things interact, though.

Brett said...

The question of miracles is an interesting one.

Is there official doctrine on how miracles work? I've often heard it said that God functions within eternal laws. There is plenty of scriptural evidence that God is bound by the laws of justice and mercy, but are there statements addressing Him being bound by physical laws as well?

It’s possible that miracles are performed through natural processes, the laws of which we don’t understand. Sort of in the spirit of Arthur C Clarke’s saying “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” But what if the priesthood works through the obedience of the elements a la that Skousen article that our sharing the gospel teacher shared with us? That seems like something outside of physical explanation. Maybe not. I don’t know.

But more down to earth, I think the well established doctrine that faith precedes the miracle is germane. A faith based on miracles is a shaky one, just as is one based on the shortcomings of science.

Ryan said...

I guess I don't think faith preceding the miracle exactly resolves my concern. Even if you have faith first, the miracle is still there to bolster faith because faith is not a perfect knowledge.

Maybe confirming belief is not the main point of all miracles. Maybe some miracles are meant as blessings for the faithful, such as healings. But even the healings in the New Testament could often be done in less dramatic fashion, so I assume part of the point was to provide a type of evidence, even if only for those who already believe. Also, other miracles seem like they were done specifically to demonstrate God's power. I always understood Old-Testament Gideon was only allowed 300 men to go to war, so that God could show his power.

I think you could--and many believers would--contend that the creation of the universe is a miracle. Didn't Joseph Smith say something like the first miracle Jesus performed was the creation?

So to my mind, the function of miracles is in part to strengthen our faith. So to me, miracles seem closely related to philosophical arguments for the existence of God from unexplained natural phenomenon.